Probe was ordered into taking of loans by pledging leased forest land

Environmental organisations here have asked the government to order an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the encroachment and sale of large tracts of forest land in Nelliampathy. On Saturday, the State government had agreed to a CBI investigation into a scam involving pledging of leased forest land and taking out Rs.15-crore loan from the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) and nationalised banks. The eco forums demanded that the scope of the CBI probe be extended to the ‘rampant encroachment and sale of forest land’ in the region.

The Padagiri police in Nelliampathy and later the Crime Branch had investigated forest land encroachment, following complaints from the Forest Department in 2010. In April 2012, the head of the special investigation team K. Sreedharan, who first inquired the case, filed six cases in the Alathur Judicial First Class Magistrate Court against two lessees of Meera Flour Estate; one each from Shernelly and Brook Land; seven from Karapara, and three from Lakshmi Estate.

Cases were registered against Revenue officials for giving possession and encumbrance certificates for government-leased land to help their present holders take out bank loan. Bank officials were charged with conspiracy and connivance in accepting leased forest land as security for bank loan.

N.K. Sasidharan, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), Eastern Circle, told The Hindu on Sunday that the lessee should get the approval of the Union government to make changes in the lease pact as per the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Forest Department could take action, including eviction, for violating the lease conditions under the 1980 Act. The Department found from the lease documents that 27 of the 52 estates in Nelliampathy violated lease agreements, he said.

P.S. Panikkar of Jana Jagratha, a people’s vigilance group, said violation of agreement should result in lease cancellation and resumption of forest land. However, the Forest Department had sought government permission to resume land only in seven cases. Two years later, the government was yet to give permission, said Tony Thomas of eco forum ‘One Earth One Life’ who got impleaded in the Nelliampathy forest land cases.

The forest lands were given on lease between 1863 and 1962. They were declared reserve forest by the Cochin government. “Only coffee and cardamom were to be cultivated in these areas. But now, other crops, including rubber, are cultivated,” Mr. Thomas said.

The lessor (government) kept “the right over the soil, all running water beyond the quantity necessary for the working and workers of the estate and also the right of collection and removal of minor forest produce, mineral laterite or other similar substances, timber and firewood.”

Many estates had abandoned plantation and were promoting tourism, Mr. Thomas alleged.

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